Modern film and television have little interest in engagement with the outside world. They are distinguished by their nihilism and love of violence; their recycling of ideas; and their tunnel vision.
We live in an age of cultural recycling. Cinema is largely made up of sequels, prequels and remakes. Modern media thinks that self-referentiality – in-jokes and references to television and film, pop culture and celebrities – are witty and original. This is why dreck like The Lego Movie – in which pop culture references substitute for genuine humour and imagination – are popular.
This is a sign of cultural stagnation.
The most popular genres are science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, which are largely vehicles for flashy special effects. It is worth considering here what science fiction actually is.
Science fiction has three main purposes: to hold a mirror to society; to imagine what the future could be, based on current trends; and to instil a particular attitude. Its worldview is material, rational and empiricist, aiming to understand and master external reality through knowledge, and celebrating the mindset that makes this possible. The hero is frequently a scientist, who is intelligent, curious and observant, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion; for instance, Professor Quatermass or Doctor Who.
Modern science fiction is “cult”. Cult is ultimately about itself: a closed system. It may borrow some of the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, etc.) but it is not interested in the same things. It is disengaged from the real world; instead, it is written for fans, and emphasises continuity, series mythology, character arcs and origin stories. Story arcs are more important than stories, and set pieces more important than plot. It is written for fans who like arguing about details, want to identify with characters and write pornographic fan-fiction. We’ve all met them – the bore who corners you at a party and whose idea of conversation is to reel off statistics about spaceships in Battlestar Galactica. Unsurprisingly, cult leads to tunnel vision.
Earlier science fiction and telefantasy programmes wanted to make people think and broaden their horizons, as well as entertain them. The works of Nigel Kneale dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age and the welfare state. The Doomwatch team monitored scientific research for possible threats to humanity, and dealt with such issues as environmentalism, pollution, urban depression, genetic engineering and the complicity of big business. Doctor Who began as a semi-educational series, teaching children about science and history, and became about humanist intellect, investigative and exploratory, asking questions and making sense of the world. Nowadays, it’s more interested in its own mythology.
The same was true of other genres. Anthology series such as The Wednesday / Play of the Week / Month examined social issues. Spy series like Danger Man were a crash course in international relations, set in foreign countries against a background of contemporary politics.
The Goon Show, Monty Python or The Goodies satirised the absurdity of contemporary life, bureaucracy, the class system and current fads and trends.
Most fiction assumed that the world was a fascinating place, and had protagonists who were well balanced, sophisticated, clever and enjoyed life. John Steed and Mrs Peel crossed swords and then were off for diabolical masterminds and champagne.
Tintin, James Bond and the Saint travelled around the world from Peru to the Poles, from the Orient to the North Pole, from the depths of the sea to outer space.
Mysterious Cities of Gold journeyed the length of South America, and ended each episode with a short documentary on history or geography.
Such tales opened up the world; they made audiences curious and whetted their appetites for travel, even if only from their armchair.
An adventurous, optimistic attitude is a healthy one – but it’s not one that is encouraged by the media.
Our entertainment lacks expansiveness, cosmopolitanism, curiosity, a sense of fun and interest in the world. We seem as a society to be in love with misery; the more of it, the better.
Characters don’t have personalities; they have angst and trauma, revealed in elaborate back stories, and brood and mope. The most popular television series feature sociopaths in a moral wasteland: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are also sociopaths. In the movies, Man of Steel (which particularly disappointed me, as I was expecting a panegyric to Stalin), Batman and the Daniel Craig 007 are sociopaths. Everything is “dark” (when it’s not blue lit).
The movie that most triumphantly set its face against the cult of gloom was The Lone Ranger. The film is unabashedly brilliant: exhilarating, exuberant, subversive and rightfully angry, dealing as it does with genocide and land exploitation committed in the name of capitalism. It champions the individual over big business, idealism and noble causes over greed and self-interest, and proclaims that freedom – fun, humour and cleverness – are better than angst. Hardly surprising that it was a dismal flop in the States.
Angst and trauma, death and darkness, despair and gloom – that’s what life’s all about it. “Sadness,” as Steven Moffat remarked in one of his more idiotic moments, “is happiness for deep people.” Really, what’s so great about sadness?
Such stories (as a wise man once remarked) tell us that we’re dull and damned, as well as being damned dull.
Why, when there’s a world out there, focus on such things? (Something whispers: So that people won’t focus on the world.) If someone thinks the world is an awful place, full of miserable people who do ghastly things to each other from the moment they pop out of the uterus and strangle their mother with their umbilical cord, will they really want to engage with the world? Or are they more likely to lock themselves away and brood?
Life’s too big and complex to be boiled down to gloom, doom and atom bomb dropping planes’ sonic boom. Life’s this great rich glorious thing out there, full of colour and excitement and adventure.
Good art — movies and television shows, theatre, books, music, painting or sculpture — opens up the world. It inspires; it engages with the world; it reflects life in its complexity; and it broadens the audience’s minds. As such, it has an important role to play in shaping people’s attitude to the world. Television and film that makes people think about the world makes for a healthier democracy.
Works that show life as bleak and miserable distort the world – and are therefore dangerous. If people are forced to accept a myth rather than truth – as Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC, observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America – intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.
Television, Greene believed, should be:
“a mirror behind what is going on in contemporary society. I don’t care whether what is reflected in the mirror is bigotry, injustice and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement. I only want the mirror to be honest, without any curves and held with as steady a hand as may be.
“If those who look out, with the eyes we have given them, see only the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring, then surely we have failed, for the world is not like that. If we ensure that only the ugly, the bestial, the violent and the tawdry appear before them, then just as surely we have failed, for the world is not like that either.”